Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: Black Jack Vol. 1 and 2

Vertical is publishing Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack manga series ($16.95 for about 300 black & white pages per volume) at a steady clip of one volume every other month until finishing up with volume eighteen; after reading the first two volumes I'd say it's a worthy endeavor. Reading this series is a blast.

The series follows the adventures of Black Jack, a man who is the greatest surgeon in the world, able to perform marvelous feats of scalpelry while at the same time teaching a good lesson to all those who act out of greed, hate, or ignorance. But he's also got a somewhat dark side -- he's unlicensed and works illegally -- which adds a little dash of danger to his actions. Each volume contains multiple episodes that range in length from twenty to forty pages. Typically, an episode runs like this: some kind of crazy accident occurs, Black Jack is called in to work his magic, but there is an unexpected twist problem, but Black Jack overcomes it, and the tale ends with a poignant moment that lays out the moral of the story. If that sounds boring or simple, trust me, these stories are anything but: the plots are almost manic, energy bounces off of every page, and you can never guess what lies around the next corner.

(read right to left)

(click to enlarge)

It's not all fun and games and necrotic fingers -- there is some serious drama packed into these books. In one episode, Black Jack heals a killer whale that shows up on the beach every day with new gashes and bruises. Our hero gains the trust of the animal and they become friends. But then the good doctor learns that the whale might be involved in attacks on people, and he must decide whether to continue treating the animal or let it die. It might sound sappy, but I'm not kidding: the ending really, really got to me, people. This is just one story of many -- and they're all good.

The art is a big part of the book's success. Tezuka is a master of pacing, and the art zips along, suspense building with every panel. Moreover, he's a fantastic cartoonist. One of my favorite aspects of these books is the way that he spends time to make every person unique and interesting. I'm not just talking about major characters, or even the characters with dialogue -- I mean everybody in there, down to every "extra" that only appears in one panel, is lovingly drawn. This page below is the first time we meet Black Jack. It's a great entrance for the guy, but I also want you to look at the other people coming off the plane.

(click to enlarge)

We never see them again, but each one looks like he or she could be the star in his or her own series. I've never seen another comic book that gives such detail and care to the extras, and Tezuka keeps it up through every single panel. It all helps to add to the fun.

Each book roars by like a finely-tuned Ferrari. To quote Ferris Bueller, they are "so choice." If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.

Go here to see free previews of the first three volumes in the series. You can buy the books here: Black Jack, Volume 1 and Black Jack, Volume 2

Disclaimer: This review is based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.


  1. Tezuka was a genius, there is no other word for him.

    Possibly one of the reasons that some of his extras look as detailed as full characters in other books is because he was well-known for reusing character designs across his (many, many, MANY) series. But that's not a point against him; he developed what he called his "star system," where his considered that his designs were akin to actors that could play many roles. Wikipedia has a page on it:

    For example, an character of his was Rock Holmes, who played a boy detective hero in early manga. Later on however he mostly got villain roles, and could actually be fairly violent. But those were different characters; they just had the same "actor."

    Again, with anyone else this would have been a cheat, but Tezuka did dozens of manga series in his life, and the reuse of these actors can be seen as a source of hidden depth in his work, and also recognizing characters across series is a little reward for the dedicated fan.

  2. That's a very cool idea and one that I had not heard about (granted, I'm still just starting to read Tezuka's work). Tezuka's familiarity with his "actors" probably helps to explain not only his detailed and creative designs for every extra, but also his knack for getting his main characters to be so expressive on the page.